When an undefeated season is at risk, athletes tend to snap into action. Halfway through their Sunday game with an untarnished 4-0 record to their name, the Blue Devils did exactly that—woke up. Once again, the Blue Devils proved themselves to be a second-half team.
Early Sunday afternoon, Duke knocked down Toledo on the road at John F. Savage Arena with a final score of 58-41. The Rockets claimed first place in the Mid-American Conference in 2021-22 and entered Sunday undefeated. The Blue Devils also entered the arena without a loss—so Sunday’s battle was inevitably going to break somebody’s perfect record.
“We really just try to play our system,” said head coach Kara Lawson after the win. “We try to do it in a way that we can be disruptive … and disciplined. And that’s what we try to do—just play the scheme.”
The beginning of the matchup hinted at 40 minutes of neck-and-neck competition. After taking the ball back from Duke (5-0) after the Blue Devils snagged the jump ball, Toledo’s Khera Goss lit up the scoreboard with its first two points. This was almost immediately balanced out by Duke sophomore Shayeann Day-Wilson’s jumper. The rest of the quarter followed suit, as Toledo and Duke battled for a lead in an energetic 10-minute stretch that rounded up a combined 31 points.
Alas, first impressions are often deceiving. The Blue Devils took a stand in the second quarter, establishing a double-digit lead that would not close for the rest of the game. Victory was the clear outcome for Duke as soon as senior Elizabeth Balogun stole a fast-break layup in this second quarter to start an uninterrupted 13-point run for the Blue Devils.
Despite its unequivocal win, Duke’s performance was tenuous, qualified by a low final score and a less-than-ideal 19 turnovers.
Perhaps unbalanced without core starter Taya Corosdale, who was unable to travel due to injury, the Blue Devils led a first quarter punctuated by disorientation. Senior guard Celeste Taylor put the ball up seven times but only garnered three points. Duke forfeited three turnovers in 10 minutes and ended the quarter at 17-14 with the direction of the game uncertain.
Toledo’s deficit began to form in the second half. In just a few minutes, the Blue Devils rounded up their lead with a 12-point run against the Rockets (3-1). Still, the team was not in sync: Turnovers racked up to nine, 3-point percentage dropped to 14.3 and misplaced passes bounced off the floor.
“I thought we just had an unusually high number of travels and offensive fouls. So we'll definitely have to be better in that,” said Lawson.
Unfortunately for Toledo, where Duke’s offense was falling short, its defense stepped up. The Rockets had a dry run in the second quarter, garnering only three points in the entire 10-minute period. The Blue Devils carried a hefty size advantage over this Mid-American team; Taylor and graduate center Mia Heide each contributed two blocks to the defensive game, strangling Toledo’s field goal percentage to a meager 30%.
“At the start the game, we were kind of off, a little bit, defensively,” said Lawson. “We were able to get that rectified in the second quarter.”
By the second half, the Blue Devils had rediscovered their groove. Junior center Kennedy Brown continued to lead the team in points as well as in rebounds, while sophomore Reigan Richardson backed her up with her own double-digit point contribution. The real life of Duke’s game was in its fast breaks: In the third quarter, freshman Ashlon Jackson stole the ball from the Rockets, zoomed down the court and set up junior teammate Vanessa de Jesus for a wide-open layup. Later in the half, Taylor claimed her own steal and brazenly drove the ball into another layup uninhibited by any Rocket defense.
Just one rebound away from her first double-double of the season, the 6-foot-6 Brown stood out on the court for more than just her height. Despite teetering on the edge of fouling out in the last few minutes of play, she led the Blue Devils to their second-half revival by banking 60% of her field goals and tying with Jackson for most assists on the team.
Reignited after halftime, Taylor stepped up to join Brown in leading the Blue Devils to victory. She claimed eight points and six rebounds over the course of the game—decent but not dramatic stats. Still, her presence on the court was forceful; the Valley Stream, N.Y., native orchestrated Duke’s crescendo, exhibiting her masterful ball-handling and making sure that it passed through the hands of every Blue Devil.
“Kennedy really got going down low,” said Lawson. “We love our depth, and we feel like that gives us an advantage.”
In the final seconds of the game, Duke stood still and held onto the ball as the largely gold-clad crowd watched the clock tick toward zero. As the buzzer sounded through the arena, the Blue Devils added a number to the left side of their record, ready to head back to Durham with their undefeated status intact.
This status will next be put to the test Friday when Duke faces off against Connecticut in the first round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland, Ore.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity first-year and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.